The Camera of Liberty

The abolitionist newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass was called the North Star, after the direction of travel taken by runaway slaves. As his fame and influence grew, Douglass became a living version of that guiding light (and the newspaper was eventually renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper). Like Polaris, he was the brightest star in the constellation of the 19th century.

Confirmation of his iconic status is provided by a remarkable new book, Picturing Frederick Douglass. We are all familiar with the superb face and figure, uniting comeliness and power, with a moral and intellectual nature to match his leonine appearance. What we didn’t know is conveyed by the book’s subtitle: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American. That’s right: Douglass went before more cameras than did George Armstrong Custer, Walt Whitman, Ulysses S. Grant, or Abraham Lincoln—although a fair accounting should probably note that, of these other much-photographed men, only Whitman spent as many years of his life in the public eye as the man who famously escaped slavery.

This handsome volume, edited by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, gathers all 160 distinct shots taken between 1841, when Douglass began his abolitionist career as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and 1895, when a deathbed photograph and death mask were produced. We see the ferocity of the young man—remembering her first sight of him on the lecturer’s platform, Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously described Douglass as “majestic in his wrath.” As the years go by, the defiance softens into the gravity of the elder statesman; this is the look that earned him the sobriquet, “the Sage of Anacostia.” He also transitions from clean-shaven to fully-bearded, hitting every possible permutation of hirsuteness in between. Douglass was something of a trend-setter in such matters (as in more important transformations like his endorsement of the vote for African-Americans and women).

This book plants firmly before us Douglass’ conviction that photography could be used for a serious public purpose. Declining the props and backdrops common in studio pictures, he kept the focus on himself (no sentimental family photos either). Through his gaze, posture, and dress, he looked every inch the dignified citizen, thereby forwarding the cause of black freedom and civil rights.

What’s more, Douglass did all he could to distribute his portrait widely. Photos were given as gifts to friends, offered to subscribers as a sign-up bonus, used to advertise lectures, and donated to charities to be auctioned. When cartes-de-visite became popular—these were card-sized photos that were avidly shared, bought, and traded beginning in the 1860s—images of Douglass and other celebrities made their way into parlor albums, alongside the family photos. Douglass, it seems, had an intuitive grasp of what is now called “branding.”

Along with its collection of photographs, this volume has two other pictorial sections. One contains non-photographic images of Douglass: a couple of paintings and plaster busts, but mostly the sketches that formed the basis for the engravings needed for newspaper and book reproduction. It’s important to realize that, until the development of the half-tone process late in the century, all the pictorial elements in the public prints were based on engravings. Engravings could be cut either from sketches or from photographs. In other words, there was no direct way to transfer an image to the printed page.

Sketches, even when done by illustrators who aimed for life-like accuracy, were inevitably rougher and less precise than photos (early cameras, in particular, with their long exposure times and large format yielded stunning depth of detail)—and the woodcuts from sketches were rougher still. Douglass also believed that most white illustrators, whether knowingly or not, were unable to create likenesses of blacks “without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.” And, of course, a great deal of pictorial work consisted of cartoons, often maliciously anti-black.

Thus, almost from the advent of the commercial daguerreotype in 1839, Douglass recognized the potential of photo-realism to counteract the propaganda of caricature. He embraced the objective truth of the new medium, very self-consciously crafting and deploying photographic portraits of himself as a moral weapon in the anti-slavery cause. Technological invention might be made to serve humane purposes.

The other pictorial section displays current works of art, each drawn from a specific Douglass photograph. There are paintings and sculptures, but the dominant form is the outdoor mural; there are now 110 of them worldwide.  Interestingly, artists are increasingly choosing to represent the younger, more militant Douglass—he of the clenched fist and jaw—rather than the éminence grise. This is especially true of community murals in black neighborhoods.

In an inspired decision, the editors elected to include Douglass’ writings on photography. Not only did he sit regularly for photographers, he also reflected on the artistic and political significance of the invention and the deeper impulse behind picture-making of all sorts. These reflections were delivered during the Civil War in a quartet of Lyceum-type lectures. (Three of the four are freshly transcribed from the handwritten texts held by the Library of Congress, appearing in print, say the editors, for the first time.[1])

If this choice of topic is surprising to us now, so it was to people back then. The orator found it necessary to apologize to his audiences, who doubtless expected him to speak on the “fierce and sanguinary debate between freedom and slavery.” Douglass, though, had never been one to confine himself to what was expected of him. When his master intended him to live as an imbruted slave, young Frederick instead learned to read. When the abolitionists hired the runaway Douglass to give firsthand testimony of the horrors of slavery, he instead started to delve into the hermeneutics of constitutional interpretation and give his views on the tactics of reform. Now that he was, in a sense, the man of the hour, much sought after as a commentator on the war and the political situation, he instead decided to speculate on the meaning of man’s imaginative nature and its essential link to the “Eternal Law of progress.”

In each of these speeches, Douglass makes a few remarks about the democratizing effects of the camera. The mark of our age, he says, is the “multitude, variety, perfection, and cheapness of its pictures” such that “what was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all.” He quickly adds: “it is not, however, of such pictures . . . that I am here to speak.” He goes right for the larger meaning, arguing that man alone among the animals has “the capacity and passion for pictures.” For him, the most important are not “those displayed upon dull canvass,” but rather what he calls “thought pictures” or “pictures of mind.” The 1865 address puts it this way: “the inside soul may be described as a picture gallery, a magnificent panorama in which things of time and things of eternity are silently portrayed.”

Douglass is interested in how these “ideal forms of excellence floating before the eye of the spirit” become externalized or objectified, given shape and color. For him, the word is every bit as illuminating as the camera. He presents orators and writers as types of painters, as when he refers to “successful painting, whether of the voice, pen, or brush.”

The editors, who have gone to the great trouble of locating and researching all these photos, understandably put their emphasis on Douglass as a lover of photography and an early theorizer about it. However, they overplay their material when, in the introductory essay, they claim that Douglass “defined himself as a free man and citizen as much through his portraits as his words.” That judgment is simply not borne out by these speeches or by the life of Douglass. Magnificent as his image was, his life was centered on verbal expression, from the moment he heard that learning to read would unfit him for slavery till the very day of his death on which he spoke to the National Council of Women.

The timing of these lectures is most interesting. Armed with the foreknowledge that physical freedom would soon be a reality for four million bondmen, Douglass turns to the education that will be needed to achieve spiritual freedom. Thus, he dwells on the “process of soul-awakening self-revelation”—a process that requires self-criticism as much as social criticism. The possibility of self-criticism depends on the juxtaposition of pictures: “the ideal contrasted with the real.” This is a point he had been making at least since 1848 (see his essay “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?”). Douglass is renowned as a searing critic of American failings (see his 1852 jeremiad “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”), but he always insisted that the “the main work [of black advancement] must be commenced, carried on, and concluded by ourselves.” For that, the right sort of “poets, prophets, and reformers” is required.

Douglass is acutely aware that the picture-making faculty, with its mysterious, symbolical hold over us, can be put to good or evil purposes. He issues a warning that ought to be mandatory reading for all creative types today:

For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.

Rappers and screenwriters are the poets and painters of our day. They control the visuals in the minds of the young. They shape the panorama of the soul.

Here too, the editors go awry. They assert that Douglass possessed a “protomodernist conception of the self”—that his rejection of social caste led him to “repudiate the idea of a fixed self.” Douglass did regard photographs as “decidedly conservative” since they reify the look of a moment, immortalizing it “statue-like.” In response, Douglass did indulge in a regular updating of his image. It is also true that Douglass believed in what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his Epilogue to the volume, calls “self-fashioning,” the striving to enlarge and ennoble the self, endowing it with “newly discovered agency” (such a contemporary word). But the crucial qualification must be stressed: this is not creation in an existential void. There is a fixed standard of “wisdom, goodness, and joy.” Douglass is more Platonist than modernist. He believed in the opposition between barbarism and civilization; in none of his photos does Douglass depart an inch from the highest type of gentlemanship.

Despite these caveats, on the whole, this volume’s supplementary materials are worthwhile. Along with the introductory essay and photo annotations by the editors, the Gates contribution is instructive in placing Douglass in conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson and also seeing the connections between the visual and verbal elements of Douglass’ analysis.

The final word is given to Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., who is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass (and amazingly enough, the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington). His lovely tribute relates how he came eventually to embrace the legacy of his distinguished forebears through the founding of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) which educates young people about modern-day slavery and human trafficking around the globe. The abolitionist work of Frederick Douglass is far from done.

Morris writes feelingly about growing up surrounded by some of these photos. I happen to agree with him that the Hillsdale College photograph from January 1863—rare in that it is more than a head and shoulders shot—is the grandest of them. We see Douglass in his prime, a man in full, in a photo taken in the same month in which the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It’s worth mentioning that this Michigan college has recently commissioned a sculpture of Douglass for its Liberty Walk to be unveiled later this year. It will serve as a picture-making reminder of the power of his words, themselves pictorial. Both sculpture and words should lead us back to the intangibles—“the pure forms of beauty and excellence . . . native to the human heart.”

[1] This claim is not quite accurate since the December 3, 1861 lecture is found in The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 3: 1855-63, edited by John W. Blassingame (Yale University Press, 1985) under the title, “Pictures and Progress.” In Appendix A can be found summaries of the November 15, 1861 and 1865 addresses.